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A VOYAGE INTO THE UNEXPECTED

The white wines of Château Rayas and Château de Fonsalette

In June 2011, I was asked to guide a tasting organised by the Châteaux Rayas and Fonsalette importers of many years standing, O.W. Loeb, in London, and accepted with alacrity. The audience consisted of sommelières and sommeliers working within reach of London. These white wines present a challenge for many sommeliers, who may never have drunk anything similar, and who also feel they are risky to put on their lists. In fact, the two whites are wonderfully food friendly, and stimulating, both for mind and palate. 

The tasting was provocative in theory, and in practice. The wines are rare, while the Rayas is expensive. I usually taste them not in bottle, but from the old casks at Rayas, where both wines are vinified. They imperatively require a good dish, but such a marriage is a challenge for those brought up with orthodox white wine tastes. Their false expectation is that white wines should contain live acidity at their heart, and taste "fresh". Wines built around ripeness and glycerol - which brings in white Rhônes - are out of the loop for many of these drinkers, or those trained in supposedly technical, progressive academies - can you imagine old vine Grenache blanc fermented in very old  600-litre oak being on the agenda at the Wine School of Montpellier? I thought not.

A leading feature is how long the wines live, in defiance of their handling and preparation, whereby exposure to air is no big deal. Again, the orthodox school overlook the fact that there is no beating ripeness of one`s crop, with the depth naturally provided serving to sustain the wines over decades. Bottles of white Fonsalette frequently wander well into their third decade, while the 1934 Domaine Roger Sabon white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, drunk in the mid-1990s, remains one of the legendary white wines of my career. Utterly oxidised upon opening, by the end of the main course at lunch it had revived in the most startling fashion, offering a panoply of intricate, compelling flavours and sensations. We were three at the lunch table, a good number to properly enjoy such a wine.

Château Rayas and Château Fonsalette, the latter a mere Côtes du Rhône, march to their own tune, outside Superhighway notions: they always have, they always will. They represent the wayward genius of the Reynaud family, the notaries from the low Alps near Apt, who moved west to the sunnier, warmer areas of Châteauneuf-du-Pape upon retirement in 1894 - I write of the great-grandfather of Emmanuel, who today runs these two domaines, as well as the Château des Tours at Vacqueyras, and has something like eight children. There is no such thing as press button, cruise control in Emmanuel`s life. He is a man on the move, happiest in his province rather than exploring the offshore audiences that all want to embrace him and his wines. It is not just wine that he makes, either. I have even had cause to help him stack his little white van with boxes of the family olive oil - in the middle of tasting and noting his wines in the dingy Rayas reception area, unchanged these past forty years since I first visited.

Château Rayas and its vineyards stand out of sight behind the Château de Vaudieu, just off the eastern road out of Châteauneuf-du-Pape towards Courthézon. Before the First World War, the area around the Château was marked out by its quantity of woods - small pines, green oaks - which remain a prime feature today. The trees have always been deliberately nurtured by the family for their contribution to a mixed eco-system, and for the fact that they provide wind breaks that diminish the effect of summer storms, and establish confidential little ripening ovens for the plots across the property. The family also had no bulldozers to knock down the trees in the 1920s, if one is to add in a more belt and braces comment on their philosophy.

In those post-phylloxera days, there were few vineyards, and the staple cultivation centred around corn fields, olive groves, apricot and cherry trees; Châteauneuf-du-Pape had a thriving cherry fruit market for many decades, renowned in the region, and held in the middle of the village a couple of kilometres away.

Growing up in this rural idyll, Louis Reynaud, the grandfather of Emmanuel, took himself off to Agricultural School in Angers. I first met him when I was the callow youth, struggling to write a book on the Rhône, 22 years old, living in the upmarket city of Aix-en-Provence a little further south. You would not have guessed the age difference. Monsieur Reynaud received few people, but seemed to appreciate my attempts to record matters faithfully, and my ability to speak a little French, especially fluid when tasting one of his extraordinary wines. Remember that I was launched into a world when a nicely aged Rayas rouge uncorked on my behalf, or even given to me as a parting gift, ranged from the 1962 to the 1967 vintage. A white wine treat would be the now legendary 1955 liquoreux. Happily, I was completely aware of the treasure being imparted, since the aura of the place and the owner`s philosophy was magnetic.

Louis returned to the Vaucluse intent on developing the vineyards at Rayas, and made his first wine in 1922. The Tidal Wave of January 1924 shaped his subsequent thinking on his vineyards; the line of the Wave is struck in stone on the great Roman Wall in Orange, so high and almost mythical was it. He therefore decided to work with the series of small plots protected by trees. He also took into account that an open expanse of land would encourage unwanted erosion of his soils. Today there are 15 plots over the 13 hectares (official "records" suggest that Rayas has 15 hectares), the largest plot being the roughly two hectares of Pignan, towards Courthézon, where the sandy soils for which Rayas is famous prevail.

Three wines were made at Rayas - a red, and two whites, one of them sweet, a Liquoureux that existed until 1955. This was a wine known more by the American public than by the French, since it had been discovered, perhaps even liberated, by the liberating Army in August, 1944. All the wines were vinified in remarkably similar ways to today, with doing very little being the watchword, exemplified by a family culture of laissez-faire that respected nature and the gradual development of its grapes into wine.

Château Rayas white is composed of half Grenache blanc, half Clairette. The Grenache blanc is part 1940s-1950s, part 1990-1995, while the Clairette dates from 1986, with a small amount of 1950s plants. The Grenache blanc grows in sandy soils with different exposures, notably the rising sun, in a micro plot called Ponsard, a little on the setting sun at Pignan, and some beside the Château, which they call the heart. The Clairette grows in one plot of sand with some clay, while there is a little Clairette still dating from 1948 and the 1950s at Pignan, on more draining sandy soil.

The second property, the Château de Fonsalette, presented another opportunity for the Reynaud sense of experimentation. It was built up between 1945 and 1955. Its 11.5 hectares of vineyards are on cool soils north of Châteauneuf-du-Pape at La Garde Paréol near Uchaux. The Grenache blanc there grows in sandy soils, the Clairette in fine gravel soils, and the Marsanne on the richest soil, which contains some clay. The white forms about 15% of the total vineyard.

"I have been putting in Grenache blanc in place of the Marsanne as it ages," Emmanuel Reynaud explained to me in 2011. Historically, the Marsanne has formed between 8 and 10% of the white vines, a little less if including one or two of the stray Chardonnay vines that have always been present as, shall we say, a "salute" to Authority. These latter vines date from around 1965.

The Marsanne was planted in 1978, and between 1980 and 1987 by Jacques Reynaud, Emmanuel`s uncle. Emmanuel feels that "it oxidises and evolves fast, and I find the perfume particular." In 2010, extra rows of Clairette blanche were also planted, as the vineyard receives a gentle makeover.

Emmanuel has continued the family methods with faithful simplicity. "For my white wines, I seek a belle maturité, a handsome ripeness, but never over-ripeness. Fonsalette is always later to ripen than Rayas because of its cooler soils. I vinify them both the same way, in a mixture of 450 and 600-litre oak casks. The Grenache blanc is in the 600-litre demi-muids at Rayas, the Clairette in 450-litre casks (a double pièce)." The casks in question can be seen behind Emmanuel in his photograph on The Big Tastings tab: they are hardly a commonplace sight in cellars in 2011 A.D.

Fermentation can extend for a minimum of three weeks, at around 20-22°C, but Emmanuel is at pains to emphasize: "I don`t look at the temperature, but I do note that in previous times the fermentation would run over 10 to 15 days. I consider that the longer duration is because there is less yeast in the air nowadays, part of a cycle, the effect of drought years. This has perhaps been going on in the past four years. But the longer the fermentation, the better the wine is."

The varieties are assembled at Christmas, then raised in steel tank until late November. The malolactic is allowed to complete in its own time, the watchword of "laissez faire"  applying now as much as it did in Louis Reynaud`s time. Bottling remains an artisanal affair, with the vintages since 2007 producing small yields; Fonsalette has fallen to around 2,500 bottles instead of the previously more normal 4,000 bottles. Rayas white numbers 6,000 to 7,000 bottles.

Looking through my records, I can highlight the 1976 Fonsalette white as outstanding - it still tasted very good after twenty-five years; the 1983 was also excellent - in 1991 it had turned to a pale straw colour, and after 30 minutes` air it blossomed, revealing citrus fruit and hazelnut on the nose, with the palate a soft and elegant affair of great finesse. The 1990 was long and complete as well.

I therefore expect Fonsalette to "deliver the goods" in most vintages. Its main feature is its singularity, its inability to form part of the rest of the vinous race, and its defiance of convention. Hence it was no surprise to hear comments about oxidation during the O.W Loeb tasting, which are at times undeniable, but which do not impede the wine from continuing to live and to intrigue over many more years. The glycerol and the ripeness, with the ease of the content, all contribute to the wine`s endurance, and likewise, augment the range of flavours and sensations that successfully accompany it.

Rayas blanc is a step up from the Fonsalette, the main supplement being its richness, its deep-seated gras, which beguiles and pleases in equal measure. In the 1980s, it was fermented in enamel-lined vats at what Jacques called "atmospheric temperatures", and was then raised in the trusty 600-litre casks for 14 months, meaning a second winter of raising - a principle which I frequently support, the second bout of cold serving to clarify and settle the wine, and to integrate it as a result.

By the 1990s, Jacques had cut back the raising to nine months, and, if the malolactic had not taken place by the springtime, would actually block it by filtration. Bottling therefore took place under the current schedule of late November or December.

A neat description of these two whites is difficult, for the simple reason that they both involve so many varied and unusual sensations, both on the nose and on the palate. As a consequence, one is also spurred into almost feverish calculations about what foods should accompany these exotic prompts from another age.

From the June tasting, the Fonsalette bouquets held a theme of showing apricot or dried fruit airs, along with honeycomb, dashes of pine needle and hazelnut. In years of higher then usual acidity - 2002 and 2006, for instance - aromas of quince and lime came into play, entirely logically. Saltiness was also apparent from time to time.

The palates on the Fonsalette were often very close to their vintages - the solid jam finale of the 2003, the supple, fleshy delivery of the milder 1997 vintage, marked by its warm nights. The 2002, the vintage of heavy September rain, was not long, but long enough, its length driven more by its aromatics than by content. Hence there is considerable "accuracy" in these wines. I find too many tasters miss this point, and spend too long identifying faults or notes of oxidation. They need to think, and taste, more out of the box.

The 2005 was formidable, an STGT wine which duly related its hot, dry year as it was about to close down. Very structured, its herbal, garrigue sign-off was exemplary. This was my preferred Fonsalette, a real quality treat.

The Rayas 2006 is a mighty wine, with my second impression from bottle in November 2008 completely confirmed. The Clairette was harvested two weeks after the Grenache blanc. The wine has enormous appeal, being a really rich version of Rayas at 14.2°, with what I term a "Bugger Off, World" quality about it: whatever the bad news pouring in, a glass of this will swiftly allay such matters.

The fine acidity which is a hallmark of many Rayas-Fonsalette wines, both red and white, shone through in the 2004 Rayas white, the gras of the south delivered in velvet. The 2005 showed the grip of the vintage, needing time to soften, and possessing very good length, while the 2003, not surprisingly a robust wine, was in no way overdone, with just a ray of heat on the finish.

Rayas white is suited to big flavours - meats including veal, lobster - notably in the big vintages. The finer years, such as 2004, are more appropriate with fish such as sea bass, sole in sauce and less Show Biz of flavour in the dish. All the wines benefit from decanting to waken them.

I routinely expect Fonsalette to live over twenty years, and the Rayas white at least a decade longer. I would not be surprised if wines such as the 1967 white - a great success - were still in good shape, over forty years on.

As a postscript, a word on a couple of Fonsalette reds that I have drunk since the tasting. The first was the 1989 Fonsalette Syrah. Its Syrah has always been a leading light for the Southern Rhône, aided by its cool soils to avoid the overripe jamminess that can blight southern Syrah. The vineyard is mature now, but even in 1989, the same applied. The oldest block of vines was planted between 1944 and 1948, demonstrating the pioneer spirit of Louis Reynaud. In 1989, the subsequent block from 1987 was not yet in production.

1989 Château de Fonsalette Syrah

This has taken on another leg of its journey since I previously tasted it in February 2005. I termed this spinal, tight, and robustly local, with the characteristic discreetness of length present: a wine in fine form.

At the Repaire de Cartouche restaurant in Paris (8 boulevard Filles de Calvaire, the lower entrance on 99 rue Amelot, 75011 Paris, north of the Bastille, tel +33147002586), which serves many organic Rhônes, the 2004 Fonsalette red was unruffled and authentic, a true pleasure in its understated expression. Why shout when a murmur will do?

2004 Château de Fonsalette red

Both red wines were remarkable, and serve as a fitting postscript to this account of the Reynaud family dynasty. Allez Louis, allez Jacques, allez Françoise, allez Emmanuel! 

WINES TASTED AT LANSBOROUGH HOTEL, LONDON, JUNE 2011, courtesy of O.W.Loeb

Château de Fonsalette blanc

*****  2005  STGT, character  2029-31 
****(*)  2000  out of the loop, lots of character  2023-25 
****(*)  1997  STGT, fine acidity, length  2022-24 
****  2006  stealthy richness  2023-25 
****  2004  interesting, nutty  2022-24 
****  2002  aromatic length, front load wine  2023-24 
****  1999  the solid south, richness 1 oxidation 0  2024-26 
****  1995  STGT, has 1995 cut; evolving  2021-23 
***(*)  2003  good job in tricky year; central mass  2025-27 
***  1998  bit stretched, delicate  2020-22 

Château Rayas blanc

******  2006  rich, so rich it chases you down, no hiding  2034-37 
*****  2005  tenacious, secure depth, v gd balance  2032-34 
*****  2004  rich texture, wonderful acidity  2030-32 
*****  2003  beefy; mystery, unfinished business  2030-34